New York state legislators have a 24/7 job and, regardless of which side of the political aisle they sit on, should be compensated for their professionalism, commitment, expertise and time. This isn’t an ideological debate, but one that needs to recognize the effort it takes to fulfill the role of legislator. As these public servants consider granting themselves a salary increase they should be unapologetic about that proposal but with an appreciation that they need to engage their constituents regarding the intensity of the job and the fact that it ethically precludes the majority of outside income.
The legislature traditionally meets six months out of the year with public calendars filled with committee hearings, neighborhood listening sessions, constituent service responses and time actually spent in the legislative chamber for debates and voting. Yet those efforts don’t adequately reflect the fact that these lawmakers then return to their home districts where they engage in what is, for all intents and purposes, a seven day a week schedule of community engagement. Late nights and weekend events are part of the job. If they have families, birthday parties and Little League games are often missed. Few talk about it, but this reflects the reality of their legislative responsibilities.
Currently, New York’s assembly members and state senators receive a base salary of $110,000, or about $40,000 less than a Walmart staff pharmacist. Minimal additional dollars are earned by legislators for various leadership positions on specific committees. As a basis of comparison, members of Congress are paid $174,000. The proposal for New York increases legislators’ base pay to $142,000, the highest rate in the nation.
Increasing the salaries of elected officials has never been politically popular as opponents invariably use it in their attacks on the incumbent during the following election cycle. Over the years, the legislature has sought to insulate itself from that tired tactic by assigning the task of compensation review to an independent commission, but that process has become a donnybrook. It was only recently that the state Court of Appeals ruled that the commission met the legal test to exist and offered its recommendations for legislative pay hikes.
One question that remains unanswered by the commission, or the courts, is how and how much outside income for lawmakers should be permitted. Many of the legislators are attorneys. The various ethical issues they face because of their public service positions severely limit them in the private sector. Those that fail to create unbreakable firewalls to prevent potential conflicts of interest do so at their own risk. As a result, unless they are independently wealthy, the fact is public service puts them at a financial disadvantage.
Gov. Hochul recognizes that a fair and appropriate legislative salary is key to good government. She recently told reporters, “I believe they deserve a pay raise …They work extraordinarily hard. It's a year-round job. I've been with them many times in their districts and they work very hard and they deserve it. It is up to them on whether or not they want to come back (to Albany and convene a legislative session) and make that effective.”
She is not alone in the belief that appropriate government salaries help attract the best qualified candidates for the job. When he served as New York’s governor, Theodore Roosevelt understood the need to pay public employees a fair and living wage. He not only improved the civil service system, he also sought to improve wages and hours for state employees.
Regardless of your political stripe, if we are to demand the best qualified candidates for public life, we need to recognize that many of these individuals can find far better compensation in the private sector. You want smart, honest people with a work ethic that stretches from Albany to their home district to be your representative? That means providing a salary that may never be competitive with the business world but at least ensures smart people with integrity are prepared to take the job.
Howard Fensterman, managing partner and co-founder of Abrams Fensterman, LLP, which represents the Kings County Democratic Party. He is a Democratic donor and past Long Island finance chairman for Sen. Chuck Schumer and former Gov.s David Paterson and Andrew M. Cuomo.